Mastering the moves: What chess can teach us about therapy

Can chess teach us how to master therapy?

During therapy sessions, the therapist and client engage in a strategic display of understanding, support, and growth. In this intricate dance, therapists strive to be steps ahead of their clients, anticipating their needs, reactions, and concerns. This makes our own experiences easier to navigate but also the experience more fruitful for the client too. For example, a game of chess is not only about intellect; it requires foresight, intuition, and planning. Similarly, therapists must possess this unique set of skills and strategies to navigate therapeutic journeys successfully. Here we explore some of the parallels between chess and therapy, and the skillsets that we must develop.

The power of anticipation:

A skilled chess player thinks several moves ahead, envisioning various scenarios and adapting their strategy accordingly. Likewise, therapists strive to anticipate their clients’ emotional reactions, cognitive patterns, and behavioural responses. By understanding their clients deeply, therapists can proactively tailor their interventions and support, creating a safe and effective therapeutic space.

Reading the room:

Just as a chess player reads the chessboard, therapists must be astute observers of their clients. In therapy, the board comprises non-verbal cues, subtle shifts in tone, and micro expressions. By attentively observing their clients’ body language and verbal nuances, therapists gain valuable insights into underlying emotions, unspoken concerns, and the progress of the therapeutic journey. This acute awareness guides therapists in making informed decisions and offering targeted interventions.

Flexibility and adaptation:

Chess demands adaptability, as players must adjust their strategies based on their opponent’s moves. Similarly, therapists need to be flexible, recognising that each client’s needs and circumstances are unique. With psychological flexibility, therapists can adapt their therapeutic approach, shifting gears when necessary, and finding alternative paths to help their clients overcome challenges.

Thinking in systems:

Chess players understand that each move influences the entire system of the game. Similarly, experienced therapists consider the interconnectedness of their clients’ experiences and behaviours. They explore the underlying factors that contribute to their clients’ struggles, acknowledging the complex web of emotions, thoughts, and external influences that shape their lives. By considering the larger systemic context, therapists can offer comprehensive support and address the root causes of their clients’ concerns.

Balancing short-term and long-term goals:

In chess, players must balance short-term tactical moves with long-term strategic plans. Likewise, ACT therapists must help clients manage immediate difficulties while keeping sight of their long-term goals and values. By considering the potential consequences of each therapeutic intervention, therapists guide their clients towards sustainable change and personal growth.

As an ACT therapist, being steps ahead of your client refers to the ability to anticipate and understand their needs, concerns, and reactions in order to provide effective support and guidance.

So how do we stay steps ahead?

With experience, therapists develop a deeper understanding of common patterns, challenges, and responses exhibited by clients. We can learn to recognise recurring themes and anticipate potential roadblocks, which allows us to tailor interventions accordingly. However this isn’t the only thing we should do, as if we rely on our practice alone, it can keep us quite rigid (the opposite to a core ACT principle of being psychologically flexible!). While we will never be able to predict every detail of a client’s’ experiences, there are many things we can do to help to stay ahead:

  • Continual education and training: As therapists we undergo extensive education and training, which includes learning about various psychological theories, therapeutic techniques, and human behaviour. This knowledge equips us with a broad understanding of different mental health issues and strategies for addressing them, but continual education and focused training can hone these abilities and increase our efficiency when supporting clients. Our Mastering ACT workshop with Dr Robyn Walser is designed for practitioners who are familiar with ACT and use it regularly in their practice. Her approach is to help you develop meta-skills, including recognising behaviour patterns, discerning underlying functions, and anticipating next steps for client progress. Through this, therapists can gain confidence, creativity, and a holistic view of the therapeutic landscape, resulting in improved therapy relationships and outcomes.  
  • Active listening and observation: Therapists actively listen to their clients, paying attention not only to what is said but also to non-verbal cues such as body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. This careful observation helps therapists gain insights into their clients’ emotions, thoughts, and underlying concerns, even if the clients themselves may not explicitly express them.
  • Supervision and consultation: Engaging in regular supervision or consultation with more experienced colleagues or mentors can provide an opportunity to discuss challenging situations, seek guidance, and gain insights from others’ experiences. Supervision helps therapists refine their skills, expand their knowledge, and enhance their ability to anticipate and navigate potential therapeutic challenges.
  • Other learning: Therapists engage in ongoing professional development to stay updated on the latest research, therapeutic techniques, and advancements in the field of psychology. By staying informed, we become exposed to new perspectives, interventions, and strategies that can enhance their ability to support their clients effectively.
  • Flexibility and adaptability: Therapists understand that each client is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. To maintain flexibility in an approach, we must adapt strategies and interventions to meet the evolving needs of clients. This ability to adjust their therapeutic style ensures that therapists remain responsive and stay ahead of their clients’ changing circumstances. As we expect our ACT interventions to make clients more psychologically flexible, we must remember this is important practice for ourselves too.

Remember, being steps ahead of clients does not mean we have all the answers or can predict everything that will happen. Therapy is a dynamic and interactive process, and therapists work alongside their clients to explore, understand, and navigate challenges together. The aim is to create a supportive and empowering space where our clients can gain insights, develop coping strategies, and make positive changes in their lives.

 

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